CHAPTER II. THE TRINITY
COLLEGE AS A RECORD OF
THE MIDDLE AGES.
Mr. Barrett in his book on the Trinity House (fn. 1) has already written
the history of the Corporation so carefully, that little or nothing remains
to be said, but he has not, I think, done justice to the Hospital, nor has he
sufficiently brought out the historical importance of what is left of the
Corporation's old world records in brick and stone. What I wish to do here
is to trace the connection between the historical idea underlying the
institution of the Hospital, and the mediæval principles of the Mariners'
Guild of Deptford, to which the Corporation owes its origin, and to
discover in so doing what were the essentially mediæval principles in the
spirit of which the Hospital was founded. To do this more satisfactorily,
we may first of all compare the constitution and functions of the Deptford
Guild with those of other Maritime Guilds in mediæval sea towns, notably
those dedicated to the Trinity, and yet remaining to us under the name
of Trinity Houses. We shall find that for the most part they possess
certain features in common.
The Charter of Henry VIII.
It is not here necessary to go into the question of the remoter origin of
the Guilds, or to consider whether they were or were not of Teutonic
growth. Suffice it that, in the middle ages, they represented what we
may term the Teutonic principle of voluntary Association, and different
trades and occupations formed themselves into societies bearing distinct
characteristics. The Tradition held since the beginning of the 17th century and confirmed by the memorial in Stepney Church as to the
founding of the Deptford Guild by Sir Thomas Spert (fn. 2) appears to me
to be quite compatible with the existence of an earlier Guild, and this
the Charter of Henry VIII. (fn. 3) would seem to prove. "And further" says
the act of Henry VIII. "we have granted to our said liege people and
subjects (i.e., the existing Guild), that they may have and enjoy all and
singular the Liberties, Franchises, and Privileges, which their Predecessors,
the Shipmen or Mariners of this our Realm of England, ever had, used
or enjoyed. And also that they may have and hold to them, and their
successors, all the lands and tenements which they now have in Deptford
Strond aforesaid, of the gift or grant of whatsoever person or persons."
What took place in the reign of Henry VIII., then, was merely a
re-modelling or re-incorporation, one of those periodical re-incorporations
by which the Guilds adapted themselves to changing social conditions, and
while not accepting altogether Mr. Barrett's view that "the Guild was
incorporated as a consequence of the wise naval policy of Henry VIII.,"
I think it may be safely stated that Sir Thomas Spert, who, according to
the inscription on the monument, was Controller of the Navy, was Master
of the Guild at the time of its re-incorporation, and that in accordance
with the general policy of Henry VIII. the existing Guild that controlled
the mouth of the Thames, as the Hull Guild controlled the mouth of the
Humber, and the Newcastle Guild the mouth of the Tyne, was re-modelled
with slight variations in its mediæval constitution in 1514. It is much to
be regretted that the Charters that might have established these facts have
been destroyed by fire, but we may safely assume the existence of the
earlier mediæval fraternity, and an inspection of the records left to us of
the other Trinity Guilds devoted to naval purposes in other parts of the
Kingdom, will give us a fairly complete picture of what the mediæval
Guild down to the Stuart time must have been like.
Other Trinity Houses.
We find then that there were Associations of this nature, and of which
we have records, in the principal sea-faring towns of mediæval England,
in Newcastle, Boston, Hull, Lynn, Sleaford, Wisbeach and Wyngale, and
their nature, purpose, and function is for the most part the same. They
are voluntary associations of mariners, they fulfil the purpose of burial and
benefit clubs, they are religious in character, and also social, they undertake
in varying degrees the duties of the port, sea or fen water with which
their members come in contact, and when need offers, they act as coast
defence, in other words, they are Royal Marine and Navy.
The Newcastle Trinity.
To take first the Trinity Guild of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, we find that
it purchases its present House in 1492, and pays a red rose yearly every
mid-summer for ever as quit money, and throughout the Tudor period it
exercises similar privileges to those allowed by Henry VIII. to the London
Guild. In 1536 the King grants it a new Charter, gives it license to
build and embattle two towers as lighthouses, and confirms its rights of
pilotage and primage. In 1584, it becomes the Trinity House of
Newcastle, and from successive Kings receives local privileges similar to
those granted to the Trinity House in London.
The Boston and Hull Trinities.
In Boston we have another Trinity Guild who had their Hall and did
duty towards "the better maintenance of the Bridge and Port of Boston." (fn. 4)
In Hull was a very famous Trinity of whose founding we have a record in
1369. A group of some thirty worthy folk of Hull come together and
form a fraternity, which, like those of Newcastle, and Boston, and
Deptford, ultimately becomes the Corporation of Trinity House and
legislates in matters of seamanship. There are brothers and sisters who
form the benefit and burial club, they agree to meet regularly at the
Church of the Holy Trinity, or submit to the wax fine, and they make
regulations for the maintenance of any of their number in old age or
infirmity, even to the tunic and the little cap at the feast of St. Martin.
The Lynn Trinity.
In Lynn, the great mediæval Merchants' City of the East, the Trinity
Guild occupied a most important position. In the reign of John one of its
members was mayor of the town, and at the time of the Reformation,—
for we may estimate the wealth of Guilds by the number of Chaplains they
supported and gave Henry VIII. the opportunity of suppressing—its wealth
must have been very great, for it maintained thirteen.
The Wyngale Trinity.
The Guild of the Holy Trinity of Wyngale again gives us a record
from 1387, and we find rules laid down for keeping up lights, and for
the searching of the bodies of the drowned.
The Wisbeach Trinity.
The most interesting of all the records of Guilds dedicated to the
Trinity, is that of Wisbeach, which appears to have been founded in
the reign of Richard II. (1379), and which did many years of good
work in keeping out the sea and saving the fen country from inundations. This Guild has left us a minute account of its receipts and
expenditure for the first few years of its existence. The Christmas feast,
the cost of the image of the Trinity, and the pay to the plasterers for
putting it up; the removal of the Parclos; the beer for the workmen, the
woollen cloths for the hoods that came all the way from London for the
brethren, and the expenses of a certain grand Guild feast, at which it would
seem that apparel for ten dancers had to be purchased—all are recorded,
not to mention the cost of the many delightful things with which the
hall was ornamented. As might have been expected, the expenditure
exceeded the income, and so a levy had to be raised, which, says the
chronicler, "ought to be paid by the sixty-seven brethren, viz., each of
them 5d.; and thus there would remain 1s. 11¼d. (no mean sum !), which
the said brothers expended in wine before they departed, and so, from
the account, nothing remains. Amen."
There are also a variety of other entries from time to time, records of
local government, the maintenance of the fen-dyke against inundations,
judicial business, the institution of a school, matters of benefit, burial,
and alms, and among them in 1477 "for the salvation of the soul of
Thomas Blower" the entry of a bequest of "one new edifice called the
Almshouse, built and situate in the New Market of Wisbeach." (fn. 5)
The Deptford Trinity.
From the character of these various Guilds, we may also judge the
character of the Guild of Deptford, and in what exists of its customs and
its duties at the present day the mediæval conditions are quite evident.
In the lights and pilotage we have the origin of powers similiar to those of
Boston, Hull and Newcastle, in the Mile End Hospital is traceable the
old principle of Mediæval Charity, in the Chapel the religious intention,
and in the suits of the old pensioners—the blue stuff and the brass
buttons as we still see them—the "cloth for the hoods that came from
London" for the brethren of Wisbeach, or the tunics and caps for the
brethren of Hull.
It must be borne in mind, however, that these associations in the
middle ages were not charities. The object was not to give doles or alms
to the poor. They were voluntary associations, trade unions, in this
instance trade unions of mariners, and clubs for mutual aid. They
fulfilled divers and certain functions, and the character of corporate unity
gave also a distinct character to the manner in which their benefits were
bestowed. Even well into the 17th century there appears neither in the
Deptford Guild, nor in such of the others as still continue, any change
in the corporate conception; it is understood that help is given to the
poorer members of the Guild; but it is not charity bestowed from outside
or from above, it is internal—the real sort of charity, as one might call it
—every brother of the fraternity has equal rights. One could wish that
this mediæval conception of the limits and functions of charity were a
little more regarded by the Charity Commissioners in their schemes of
The Hull Trinity In 1662.
In his "Very Merry Wherry-Ferry Voyage," Taylor, the poet, writing of
Hull, in 1662, says of the Trinity House in that City:—
"Besides for every sea or marine cause
They have a house of Trinity, whose lawes
And orders doe confirm, or else reforme
That which is right, or that which wrongs deform;
It is a comely built, well ordered place,
But that which most of all the house doth grace
Are rooms for widowes, who are old and poore,
And have bin wives to Mariners before.
They are for house roome, food or lodging, or
For firing, Christianly provided for,
And as some dye, some doth their places win,
As one goes out another doth come in."
The communal life.; The status of the mediæval guild Brothers.
Just so it is in the Mile End Hospital to this day. From Taylor's
poem, too, it would appear that the ladies of the Guild not only lived in
the house itself, but that Government and Communal life were conducted
under the same roof. I press this point of the Communal life, upon
which all these houses of Trinity were founded, because in our often
insufficiently considered re-modelling of Chairties now-a-days, we lose
sight of the founders' intentions, even when they are quite realizable. (fn. 6)
But there is a further point still to be noted, which applies to the Trinity
Houses and their Charities:—the status of the recipients of the aid. I
have said that these endowments were none of them in the nature of
doles or alms to the poor, but insurance for house, home, life and limb to
brothers and sisters of the Guild. How this was the case even in
Evelyn's day is brought out very pointedly in the unintentional rebuke
which he enters against the Trinity Corporation (fn. 7) in the building of their
Hospital at Deptford. The Seamen's widows he apparently thought were
well enough off, and though the work was a good one, the money would have
been better spent on the poor of the parish. The distinction between the
seamen's widows and the poor is one that it is well to bear in mind, and
it brings with it the reflection that the contemplated destruction of the
mediæval purpose,—the Communal life of the Mile End Hospital, must
inevitably bring with it a lowering of status to the recipients of the
Charity. Our Charity Commissioners have not yet abandoned the
prevalent belief that the "out pension" is preferable to what is commonly
and contemptuously called the "alms house," but that is because they
have as yet made no attempt to re-cast one of these old Charities in the
fuller Communal spirit of the middle ages. A knowledge of the way in
which "out-pensions" work, and of the trend of modern industrial life
into groups and communities, will show that not only might a re-modelling
on the mediæval method prove a wise one, but that it may be inevitable
in the near future. It is to be hoped that the Commissioners will be
sufficiently far sighted to see that such of these institutions of Communal
Charity as still remain, have yet a great purpose to fulfil in the newer
industrial life that is springing up around them.
The Deptford Trinity as the Navy.; The Act of Elizabeth, 1566.
There is yet something to add as to the militant functions shared by
the Deptford Guild with the other Maritime and Trade Guilds of England.
Just as they were voluntary associations for life, limb and labour, so
they were also associations for defence when called upon. The Guilds of
Craft sent their levies to the City Watch, the Maritime Guilds served the
purpose of coast defence or of sea power. The most important of these
was inevitably the one that controlled the port of London. There was no
navy, as we understand it, in the middle ages, and when fighting had to
be done it was done by marine levies. It is a traditional memory of ours
that when the Spanish Armada came, the English ships were so little that
the great Spaniards shot away over their heads, but those little ships were
guided and directed by the Guild of Mariners from Trinity House. We
have records of the transference of rights that passed between the Lord
High Admiral Howard of Effingham and the Trinity Brethren. In the
stately preamble of the Act of Elizabeth in 1566 (fn. 8) "Touchinge Seamarkes and Maryners" the corporation of the Trinity House is described
(note the significance of the words!) as being "charged with the conduction of the Queen's Majesties Nayve Royall." History has shown
that this little impromptu navy answered its purpose and did its work
very well; for us it only remains to observe that the memory of it in any
practical form, and of the Guild of Mariners who manned it, is preserved
only in the Mile End College.
Here then are some of the facts which a study of such of the mediæval
Guilds as were distinctly maritime, and of the Deptford Guild in particular,
brings home to us. From these facts we can reconstruct the history,
nature, purpose and functions of the Trinity Guild in London, and we
note how its mediæval traditions have found expression in the Hospital
in Mile End, how, in short, it is an object lesson in mediæval history.
But if it preserves for us the Guild traditions of the Middle Ages, and of
the days when the navy was the maritime levy, it preserves for us in a still
more vivid manner—as I shall show in the next chapter—a yet more
sacred tradition, the birth of the British Navy itself, in the transition
period between mediæval and modern times.